The next time you curse under your breath at a Maine police officer who’s pulled you over, you might want to think again. Officers have been handing out fewer speeding tickets over the past five years.
It’s not that Maine drivers have slowed down. Police, in fact, might be just as likely to pull them over, but they appear to be letting more drivers off with warnings rather than writing tickets.
According to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, 40,129 speeding tickets resulted in convictions in 2014, the lowest number in about a decade. In 2006, 64,873 tickets resulted in convictions. Save for 2007, that number has been headed mostly downward ever since.
Neither the Bureau of Motor Vehicles nor the Judicial Branch’s Violations Bureau tracks how many speeding tickets don’t result in convictions. So it’s not entirely clear how many tickets are actually issued and what percentage end in a conviction.
It also is not entirely clear what exactly is behind the downward trend in speeding tickets and convictions. Law enforcement agencies don’t necessarily know the reasons. But everything from officer discretion to charitability to some question about how well speeding tickets actually work could be responsible.
Warnings, not citations
Law enforcement agencies have started to try to answer the question of why the number of speeding tickets has fallen in recent years, said Lt. Brian Scott of the Maine State Police Traffic Safety Division.
Scott suggested that more officers are letting Mainers off with warnings rather than citing them. But it’s not entirely clear since the state police don’t track warnings, he said.
It has been common for officers to use discretion when issuing traffic tickets, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. Police officers recognize that fines can pose a financial hardship for the working Mainer, he said.
“They know at minimum wage, people don’t make much money” and that paying a fine can be difficult, he said.
Fines range from $119 for going 1-9 mph over the speed limit to $263 for going 25-29 mph over the speed limit. Driving 30 mph or more over the speed limit is a Class E crime that carries with it a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail. These fines are increased when the infraction occurs in a school or construction zone.
Maine’s fines for speeding are, in some cases, higher than other New England states’ while the amount for some speeding infractions isn’t as daunting.
In Vermont, for instance, fines are typically lower than in Maine. The fine for going 1-9 mph over the limit is between $53 and $99, while going 25-29 mph over the limit can lead to a fine of between $241 and $281. In Connecticut, on the other hand, drivers who go 1-9 mph over the limit face a steeper fine ($152), while the fine for speeding 22 mph over the limit is less than Maine’s ($216).
Speeding is and has long been a problem on Maine roads. It’s a factor in about 4,600 crashes each year — nearly a fifth. When it comes to fatalities on the roads, speed is a factor in 41 percent of them, according to the state’s 2014 Strategic Highway Safety Plan.
But the gravity of such high speeds doesn’t necessarily register with drivers. According to a 2014 AAA nationwide traffic safety survey, about 46 percent of drivers say they have driven 15 mph over the speed limit on a freeway, while 43 percent report that they have driven 10 mph over the speed limit on a residential street. About one in five drivers considers driving over the speed limit acceptable.
Hold the ticket
Fortunately, Maine has seen progress in recent years in reducing fatal crashes. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of fatalities on Maine roads fell to 145 from 164, an 11 percent decline. Last year, the number hit a 70-year low — 131 — at the same time that speeding ticket convictions continued to decline, illustrating that steep fines for speeding aren’t always an effective deterrent.
Tackling driver tendencies to flout speed limits can, in some cases, be done just as effectively with a verbal or written warning, Scott argues.
“[Officers] don’t always need to be heavy handed. We ask each and every trooper to use discretion in every traffic stop,” he said. “For some people, a warning works.”
And there’s some research to back up the assertion that tickets aren’t consistently effective at deterring speed.
A 2007 study of Maryland drivers concluded that drivers who received speed citations are most at risk for receiving subsequent citations, suggesting such citations have only limited effectiveness. In Oregon, researchers for the state Department of Transportation found in 2002 that posting signs warning drivers of elevated fines in specially designated “safety corridors” had little to no effect on drivers’ behavior and their likelihood of crashing.
While a warning may have less gravity than a fine, it offers officers a chance to talk with and educate drivers, Scott said. These conversations aim to get drivers to see why they need to slow down so they can get home safe.
“It’s about keeping the roads safe and reducing accidents,” said Schwartz. “If a warning will do that, [officers] have a right to issue one.”